In Afghanistan, chillin’ and interpretin’

Al Kamen
Columnist April 26, 2012

After a decade of war, Afghan interpreters working with the U.S. Army speak a version of English gleaned from years spent with young American soldiers, reports our colleague Greg Jaffe , who recently returned from his sixth reporting trip there.

Most of them curse with the fluency of an infantryman. A recent conversation in Wardak province, a particularly nasty, contested area, helped reveal one of the linguistic legacies of our long war.

Al Kamen, an award-winning columnist on the national staff of The Washington Post, created the “In the Loop” column in 1993. View Archive

The American battalion commander at Combat Outpost Sayad Abad asked his Afghan counterpart why he was short of soldiers for an upcoming operation. Khan, his interpreter, relayed the question to the Afghan officer in Dari.

The Afghan commander, who took a bullet through the chest when he fought on the side of the Soviets in the 1980s, spoke for about two minutes. By the end of his little speech he had worked himself into a minor fury, jabbing his finger in the air to make his point.

Khan, who is in his late 20s and learned much of his English from hanging around with soldiers, translated: “Sir, he’s very upset. He says his soldiers went home for their leave but they don’t come back. They are sitting at home, drinking their chai, not following orders, ----ing around when they are supposed to be at work. Sir, he says they are chillin’ like willens.”

“He said they are chillin’ like what?” asked Lt. Col. Robert Horney , a 41-year-old career Army officer from Lebanon, Pa.

“You know, sir. They are chillin’ like willens,” said Khan, struggling to get his lips around the unfamiliar “v” sound.

“Villains?” said Horney. “He really said that they were chillin’ villains? Those were the exact words he used?”

“No, sir,” Khan replied. “Not exact words. But I don’t just translate. I like to put it into words that you understand.”

“Okay,” Horney said. “Thank you, Khan. That helps.”

The birds and the don’t-bees

Thursday was “Bring Your Child to Work Day,” an annual event in which children all over the country are subjected to spending the day at their parents’ boring, toy-free offices.

In Washington, bringing tots into the workplace can sometimes get a little awkward — especially these days, what with all the talk of prostitutes.

At the State Department, for example, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland opened her regular briefing by welcoming the children of reporters and federal employees who were there to observe the grown-ups at work. But things got uncomfortable when the business at hand got a little risque.

Nuland was fielding a question from a reporter about reports that Secret Service officers may have hired prostitutes in El Salvador.

Nuland grimaced a bit before delving into her answer. “What a subject to be talking about on Bring Your Kid to Work Day,” she began.

After one reporter tried to keep the prostitution talk “G-rated,” Nuland seemed to give up.

“Parents, you can explain all of this later,” she said.

Bring a booster seat

We’ve heard of witness intimidation, and now we know one of Congress’s secrets to making those testifying before committees feel a bit . . . overmatched: low-slung chairs.

Rep. Lynn Jenkins found herself on an unfamiliar side of the dais Thursday when she testified before a subcommittee of the Ways and Means Committee—of which she is a member. The Kansas Republican, used to sitting with the members of the committee, instead sat in a witness chair to discuss expiring tax provisions. Jenkins is a CPA and the sponsor of a bill that would extend tax breaks for short-line railways.

But Jenkins, when called on, had trouble even seeing over the top of the table in front of her. “I would refer to my notes,” she said, “but I can’t see them. I’m wondering if there’s a phone book or something I could sit on.”

Jenkins, it turns out, isn’t exactly a tall woman—a staffer says she stands a mean five feet even.

As her colleagues laughed, she noted: “It’s a very intimidating chair.”

Exactly . . .

Stay the cursive

As one of the stoners in the classic arthouse film “Dazed and Confused” says, “Didja ever look at a dollar bill, man? There’s some spooky s--- goin’ on there.”

And amid the symbols and seals (and owls and spiders, if you believe some particularly fanciful observers) gracing the dollar, there’s Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner’s John Hancock. The secretary’s signature appears on the right side of bill faces, below the Treasury seal — and not just on the one-dollar bills but on all denominations.

True to the mysterious nature of bills, there’s more to the signature than you might think — or at least more thought went into it than typically goes into a name jotted on a piece of paper.

In an interview yesterday with Oregon Public Broadcasting, Geithner said he had to alter his typically unreadable scrawl to make it worthy of the nation’s currency.

He admitted he has “a completely illegible scrawl that did not seem suitable for the dollar bill. So I had to change it so people could see my name.”

We searched far and wide for an example of Geithner’s illegible penmanship, but the examples of his handwriting we found were on official correspondence — letters to Congress and the like — on which Geithner apparently either used an auto-pen or was as careful as he was on the dollar.

With Emily Heil

The blog: washingtonpost.com/
intheloop; Twitter: @InTheLoopWP

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